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Hold Google culpable for cars’ Web spying

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REUTERS FILE PHOTO
  • Reuters File Photo

For years, Google has sent its Street View cars around the world, taking snapshots of street scenes and giving Web users a glimpse of places they might not otherwise be able to see on their own.

But two years ago, Google representatives admitted that they were doing much more than just taking pictures. The Street View cars were also equipped with equipment that downloaded every bit of unprotected wireless Internet traffic that was being transmitted nearby.

If a Street View car passed by your house, it wasn’t just snapping pictures of your neighborhood for Google Maps. If you had a wireless router that was not password-protected, the Google car also was recording your email passwords, notes to your friends and family, and any website you happened to visit.

Google’s representatives didn’t admit the data collection efforts of their own accord — they were forced to, thanks to an order by a German court. Canadian government officials ruled that the company had invaded the privacy of thousands of its citizens. French officials concluded that Google deliberately used the information to refine its search and advertising capabilities. South Korean police raided Google’s headquarters in Seoul.

But here in the United States, federal officials have taken their time or closed investigations in short order. The Federal Trade Commission spent a few months glancing at the scandal before closing its investigation in October 2010. The Federal Communications Commission has spent two years working on its own investigation, and it still has not released the findings to the public.

But privacy advocates such as Consumer Watchdog filed legal actions, demanding to see the report. In response, Google — which got to see the report before anyone else — reluctantly agreed to release a redacted version of the FCC’s investigation. The report makes it clear that the engineer who designed the software to spy on random residents’ Internet habits informed his peers and his bosses in advance that the Street View cars would be doing just that.

Google representatives had been careful to insist this was all just an accident — that somehow a bit of code was left in the Street View cars and just happened to spy on hundreds of thousands of people. The FCC report suggests otherwise. And now Google should be made to answer for its tactics.

For years, Google leaders including Eric Schmidt have had a disconcertingly cozy relationship with President Barack Obama’s administration. They’ve enjoyed access to the highest levels of power — even buying the services of John Podesta, the lobbyist who oversaw Obama’s transition team in 2008 — and the slow pace of the FCC’s investigation is an unpleasant reminder of what you can get when you spend enough money and attend enough dinners with the right people in Washington, D.C.

But in this case, Google’s carte blanche must end.

This scenario is a reminder of how much data we transmit, and it should be a wake-up call for people to learn how to protect their own information. At the same time, Google spied on hundreds of thousands of Americans. They stole intimate online data that many would likely consider to be private. The company must not be allowed to get away with it.

Members of Congress — including Rep. Tom Graves and Rep. John Barrow, both of Georgia, and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal — have worked hard to force Google to answer for this blatant violation of privacy. We hope this latest disclosure gives them the fortitude to finally force Google to come clean with what it did.